Prof. Dr. Sebastian Murken

Psychology of Religion

Nowadays, in a world dominated by a scientific world view, the significance of religion seems unclear. On the one hand, religious institutions increasingly lose authority and relevance; religiosity becomes a more and more private affair. On the societal level, this development goes along with individualization, loneliness and a loss of relationships and binding norms. 

On the other hand, many people feel a growing need in their lives for relationship, meaning, and transcendental experience. This is shown when, in a need for spirituality and (religious) community, many turn to more recent forms of religion like the “New Age” movement, modern esotericism and new religions. Despite the decreasing relevance of the churches, empirical studies show that individual religiosity still is for many people an important experience.

Psychologically understanding religion and spirituality means understanding how religion and spirituality affect  human beings in the way they think, feel and behave.

The subject of religion gained a special social relevance by the events on September 11th, 2001. The tremendous influence that religions can have on human beings and the way they behave has been shown to us all too clearly since that day – even though this insight is not a new one. All through the history of mankind we have seen discrimination, conflicts and even wars begun through religion, and people brought to acts of incredible cruelty in the name of religion.

On the other hand, let us also mention the positive potential of religion. Religion can give people strength and courage, which shows in individually coping with life as well as in a commitment for peace and humanitarian aims.

Psychology of Religion is a field of study which has at its core the human being and his need for, as well as his experience of, religion and spirituality. Psychology of religion can be seen as the interface between theology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies and psychology, working in co-operation with these disciplines and at the same time as their valuable supplement.  

Academic psychology of religion has a history of about 100 years which began with the emancipation of psychology as an empirical science at the end of the 19th century. Whereas psychology of religion is at least partly an established subject at universities in Anglo-American countries (the US, Canada, Australia) and European countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, it leads a shadowy existence in Germany. After 1945, academic psychology in Germany has practically ignored the field of study marked religion / religiousness / spirituality; there is no research institution, and research takes place only sporadically and on a very small scale.

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